For millions of Americans, the school year has already ended—good news for Zoom-weary students, parents, and educators alike. But even as families are figuring out how to entertain their children all summer long, teachers will have to regroup and figure out what distance learning might look like at the start of the school year. After all, choosing when to reopen schools isn’t a simple process. While some governors have said that schools will reopen this fall, last month, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the US Senate that remote learning is likely to continue into the next school year. While the CDC provided recommendations for reopening schools, there is doubt from both parents and members of Congress alike. As an educator and parent, I share these concerns.
Although we’re in the middle of the summer, teachers must begin to prepare for delivering academic instruction. While teachers can look to their districts and colleagues for resources and support, educators of faith have an additional source of wisdom: Jesus.
Yes, much of Jesus’ teaching came in person. Though he sometimes addressed people from hundreds of feet away—from a boat while they stayed on land, for example—many of the stories found in the gospels portray a person who enjoyed being close to others. Yet despite the incarnational nature of Christ’s ministry, there were moments when Christ ministered through lessons and healing at a distance.
Here are four Christ-inspired techniques critical for Christian teachers, and all educators, to add to their teaching toolbelt for the fall:
1. Identify ways to be a blessing for students at a distance.
Jesus never let his physical limitations hinder his impact. When confronted by a Roman centurion whose servant was paralyzed, Jesus used the soldier’s faith to prove that his power transcended their location (Luke 7:2-9). Though Jesus is present everywhere and his power has an unlimited reach, this story reminds us that all we actually need for Jesus to meet our needs is faith, not his physical presence. The centurion’s faith did not limit Jesus’ function as a healer despite his lack of proximity to his daughter.
Likewise, teachers can have real impact in the lives of their students remotely. A teacher friend of mine exhibited this understanding of his impact with his “Club Math After Hours.” Before the pandemic, he regularly tutored many of his current and former students after school. When his school went remote, he decided to continue tutoring students via web conferencing. For an hour each night, students would send him math problems, and he’d show them how to answer them on his whiteboard while popular music played in the background. Could he have done this prior to the quarantining period? Yes. But quarantine reminded my friend that his function as a teacher went beyond his physical limitations. To my teacher friends, don’t cede your impact to the quarantine; like Jesus, we too can touch people’s lives.
2. Give students action-oriented, purpose-driven assignments.
Jesus understood that the disciples needed practice in order to perform as apostles after departure back to heaven. Jesus sent them out, two by two, with specific instructions about their missions, after they had spent months learning from him (Mark 6:7-13). With those lessons and directives, the disciples healed people and drove out evil spirits. Like Jesus releasing the disciples out into the community, teachers should could consider offering students assignments where they can too can put lessons into practice and serve their homes, families, and communities.
While the pandemic has limited what we can do and where we can go, it has also yielded opportunities to be of service to those in need. In her lesson teaching students to tell time, my second grader’s teacher educated her class and encouraged them to look out for others by assigning them the task of timing our visit to the supermarket, with the goal of reducing that time to keep us safe during the pandemic. She gave specific instructions to carry out, and with my son’s lessons under his belt, he’s helped us shave 20 minutes from our original shopping time, even with the crowds. What made this assignment so impactful is that it provided an opportunity for my son to see how a classroom lesson had a purpose in his eight-year-old world. Learning could improve one’s quality of life, even during a pandemic. Now, he times us on everything; that comes with its own challenges!
3. Practice compassion as you teach, discipline, and make and grade assignments.
Whenever Jesus visited a town, a crowd usually followed. People often sought Jesus for healing, and Jesus never denied anyone—even when it displeased his followers. In one notorious incident, Jesus welcomed children despite his disciples rebuking them (Matt. 19:14). During one trip in Jericho, Jesus heard two blind men shouting for him, and when the crowd told them to be quiet, Jesus stopped and healed them immediately (Matt. 9:27-31). Over and over, Jesus practiced compassion by noticing people’s conditions, looking beyond their faults, and meeting their needs.
Jesus’ example of leading with compassion is an important one for educators. We may be tempted to only see our students through the lens of missed assignments or low grades. But many of our students are struggling with the effects of the pandemic at home. It’s important for us as teachers to take time and understand what is happening in their lives.
Understanding the workload that her students had with their other classes, an English teacher friend assigned a 4th marking period paper early and stretched out the assignment due dates over 12 weeks. Each week, they worked on their papers in addition to receiving brief lessons during their web conferencing. Their assignments were due on Thursdays, meaning that students had no work on Fridays or over the weekend. She recently told me that her compassion and intentionality paid off; the quality of work so far was above her expectations and her students appreciated her working with them. Her compassion enabled their cooperation and facilitated their success.
4. Be culturally responsive in your instruction.
Understanding the history of the region and experiences of the people enabled Jesus to tailor his parables and characters to reflect the lives of the people so they could see themselves. When Jesus taught through parables, he often relied on cultural norms and ways of being to build a story that taught a heavenly principle. Stories of sowing, reaping, building, planting, and harvesting related to people of an agrarian economy. Jesus recognized how one’s culture and condition serves as a building block for all future learning.
Culturally responsive teaching is important whether students learn in-person or remotely. However, everyone learns and experiences life differently. For example, according to instructional consultant Zaretta Hammond, cultures based on oral tradition, like African American culture, rely heavily on the reticular activating system (RAS) to activate learning. The RAS seeks information that validates self and one’s own beliefs based on experience. COVID-19 has disproportionally harmed black, Latino and indigenous communities. As a result, educators say that some students and their parents have dropped out of touch with schools completely as families struggle with the broader economic and health effects of the coronavirus outbreak. When we speak of the impact this pandemic has on all Americans, we must keep in mind COVID-19’s disproportionate impact. Likewise, although children of all backgrounds attend schools, not everyone learns in the same way, and culture and conditions have a lot to do with that.
During a pandemic where teachers are required to instruct students remotely, no strategic stone must be left unturned. Teachers must utilize all the tools on their toolbelt to support students during this unprecedented time. The same teacher who is running the math club has, with the help of parents, curated playlists of childhood songs according to racial, ethnic, community, and religious traditions for his students to help students study during the pandemic. Research has noted the impact music has on the brain, and while the effect of the culturally based playlists hasn’t been examined, he decided to tap into the culture of his students to facilitate nostalgia and good feelings among his students to support their well-being and concentration for both his class and other classes.
Teachers can do all these things as Christ if we are willing vessels. Let’s live this.
Rann Miller is a PhD candidate at Rutgers and is a 21st century community learning center director for a school district in southern New Jersey. His writings on race, education, and politics were featured in The Hechinger Report, Education Week, and The Grio. Rann currently serves as a youth ministry teacher at the Perfecting Church in Sewell, New Jersey.